Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, May 18

Gapers Block

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It didn�t really sound far, but a day later, at least my knees feel like I biked 45 miles this weekend. But I don�t mind, not after the winter. I wasn�t prepared for my first Midwestern winter, certainly not the desolation that comes from endless white prairie. Spring, the salve for winter and the basis for summer, has been too mercurial; however, on the North Branch Trail, it looks like the season of temperance has come to roost.

Officially, the North Branch begins around where Peterson turns into Caldwell, but if you�re heading west from the Lake, you�ll begin to see green indicators as far east as Bryn Mawr and Kedzie. Sunday morning traffic was light and we slipped down residential streets we would have no reason to be on otherwise. The last mile before we met the North Branch took us through Sauganash, a place I�d give at least a toe to live in. Wide streets lined with tire swing-grade trees straddle driveways leading to gorgeous, sometimes fanciful, pre-war homes. I imagine non-ironic Christmases in this neighborhood.

Soon after the North Branch begins in earnest at Caldwell and Devon, I remembered what I loved about riding my BMX when I was a kid � the hills. What kid doesn�t love first the arduous pumping toward the top of the hill then the scary ride back down, when your tires on the road sound like danger screaming in your very own ear? Tempered somewhat by adult concerns of scarring and insurance, going downhill still felt bitchin�.

It was 4:20pm.

Fig 1. Dizzying display at the Chicago Botanic Gardens .

The well-maintained trail wanders through decidedly diverse territory. The North Branch weaves through thickly wooded patches and grassy prairie that abruptly end and begin, almost like Legos jammed together. Light in the forest is spotty and the air smells like soil. On the prairie, the sun blares like a trumpet and it smells like grass, but not green grass, more like straw. Not alfalfa. Several of the prairie patches are in the process of being revitalized with native Illinois plants. I�ve never really thought of Illinois as a wet place, with the very large exception to our east, but water is a constant on the North Branch. Besides the North Branch of the Chicago River (for which, of course, the trail is named), the trail meanders along the funky Skokie Lagoons, and beside the Skokie River running through the Botanic Garden.

People-watching, both on- and off-trail, is quality, but wildlife also made a few choice cameos. A group of men steered tall, remote-controlled, multi-mast sailboats on the Skokie Lagoons just a few hundred yards past where we observed four deer enjoying brunch. I am not sure which was more startling � tiny chipmunks darting across the trail just ahead of my bike or all-business spandex-clad tandem bikers. And so many ducks and geese, plus the unseen birds chirping high in the trees.


Fig 2. Keep an eye out for surprises along the Trail.

I have not mentioned how biking this whole way felt. We purchased our bikes just a few weeks ago and we�ve used them a fair amount. On the way up to the Botanic Garden, I felt healthy, intrepid as fuck, and badass as hell. I passed a pack of middle-aged guys as I pumped my ass off on a steep overpass. My �on your left� sounded like the child of politeness and mockery. And this feeling continued as we glided to a stop at the bike racks just outside the Botanic Garden.

I always enjoy the Botanic Garden. I�m just not good enough to fully describe rolling hills peppered with arduously chosen plants or the beauty of a single blossom. We never talk much as we wander from the Japanese to the English Walled to the Rose Gardens. Though neither the Garden�s very excellent collection of bonsai was out nor were the roses in bloom, we had a fine time. But our legs and posteriors, stiff and pained, encouraged us to get back on the bikes before our bodies had time to regroup and revolt. We could have opted to take the METRA home, but we refused to wuss out.

Mile three on the return journey home was where my knee and bottom decided to team up, pain-wise. It was much more difficult to enjoy the beauty of the afternoon trail, especially since I kept my eyes glued to the road searching for the descending mile markers. 13.5. 12.0. We stopped at the 15-, 10-, and 7-mile markers, but I sucked it up to power through the official end of the North Branch. An ice-cream cone at Edgebrook�s Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream was a fitting way to celebrate completing all 30 miles of the Trail. But five more miles, which, I will be frank, seemed more like five hundred, and I actually asked my male companion if we could take the bus home. He must have thought I was joking as he pedaled off ahead of me, looking for the first green rectangle-shaped marker emblazoned with a bicycle. As we covered the distance, the arrow on the markers changed direction and guided us over train tracks and through subdivisions, but at the end was home. And ice packs.


About the Author(s)

Shylo Bisnett is back on her bike at Use Your Hands, while Phineas X. Jones still searches for a green rectangle-shaped marker emblazoned with a bicycle at No Commercial Potential.

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